An island located south of the Indian subcontinent, the nation-state of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) contains diverse landscapes ranging from beaches, rainforests and tea plantations to ancient Buddhist ruins and buzzing metropolitan cities. Sri Lankan society has also been influenced by varying degrees of colonial impact and modernisation. Diversity is further evident in the cultural landscape, with Sri Lanka accommodating several ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. Sri Lankans tend to identify themselves according to their ethnicity, family, religion or birthplace and will often remain loyal to those a part of those groups. While the country has seen ethnic tensions in the past, the two largest ethnic groups – the Sinhalese (74.9%) and the Tamil (15.4%) – often peacefully interact with one another.
Ethnicity and Personal Identity
One distinctive feature of Sri Lankan culture is the way in which ethnicity, language and religious affiliation correlate with one another, each being key determinants of an individual’s identity. Alongside the two largest ethnic groups – Sinhalese (74.9%) and Tamil (15.4%) – the third largest ethnic group is Sri Lankan Moors (9.2%). The remaining 0.5% of Sri Lanka’s population is comprised of Burghers (mixed European descent), Parsis (immigrants from west India) and Veddas (who are identified as the indigenous inhabitants of the land). The Tamils separate further into two groups, Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils.
Ethnicity and religion are often closely linked in Sri Lanka. In fact, one’s religion is often able to be interpreted from their ethnicity. More specifically, 70.2% of the population identify as Buddhist and are typically of Sinhalese ethnicity, while those who identify as Hindu (12.6%) tend to be ethnically Tamil. Although those who identify as Muslim (9.7%) come from various backgrounds (most being Sri Lankan Moors), they are commonly recognised as a single populace in Sri Lankan society.
The prevalence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka tends to reinforce the dominance of the Sinhalese majority. The Sinhalese elites and parts of the Buddhist Sangha who support Sinhala Buddhist nationalism argue that Sri Lanka is the ‘Dhamma Kingdom’ – the land of Buddhism. However, such an assertion also has the potential to marginalise other religions and ethnicities in the country (see ‘Buddhism’ in Religion).
There are three official languages of Sri Lanka: Sinhala, Tamil and English. This is evident throughout the country, with most signs written in all three languages. The Sinhalese-Buddhist majority mostly speak Sinhala, while Tamil is spoken widely by Sri Lankan Moors/Muslims and ethnic Tamils/Hindus. English was introduced as a result of the British colonial rule and has become the language used in government administration and commercial activities. However, the Sinhala language is still prevalent in these sectors of society. Language is a contentious issue in Sri Lanka, in part due to the ‘Sinhala Only’ initiatives supported by some politicians. This provoked a push for resistance by some Tamils, which (along with other issues) paved the way for civil conflict.
Civil Conflict (1983 - 2009)
Periods of tension among ethnic groups have occurred since the country’s attainment of independence in 1948 from British colonial rule. Sri Lanka’s post-independence era is notably marked by the rise in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the subsequent civil tensions.
Although the civil conflict officially began in 1983, the tensions underpinning the conflict extend much further into Sri Lankan history. The ‘Sinhalese Only’ movement emerged as a way to define the national identity of Sri Lanka. This marginalised non-Sinhala and non-Buddhists and limited their access to state-controlled opportunities and benefits. Resistance against Sinhala nationalism by a small group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resulted in the civil conflict. The conflict created widespread displacement and resulted in up to 100,000 deaths. Moreover, as many people fear publicly discussing the civil conflict, expressions of concern and mourning have been somewhat limited to the private sphere. This has meant that, for many Sri Lankan families and households, the civil conflict continues to evoke unreconciled grief and sorrow.
The Sri Lankan government declared victory over the 26-year-long civil conflict in 2009, but relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils in the political and social arenas may sometimes be tense. The aftermath of the civil conflict has seen large numbers of Tamils fleeing the country. According to the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2014), the majority of Sri Lankan migrants between 2012 and 2013 were of Tamil ethnicity, many of whom were seeking asylum. Although tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils may erupt sporadically, the two ethnicities generally coexist peacefully and cooperatively.
Despite the fractures in society, many Sri Lankans take great pride in their nationality – particularly in its distinction from India, both in terms of nationality and culture. Remnants of Indian culture are evident in Sri Lanka, largely stemming from shared Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Over time, the cultural traits brought from the Indian subcontinent have independently grown and changed in Sri Lanka, contributing to the formation of a distinctive Sri Lankan culture and identity.
Despite ethnic tensions in the past, Sri Lankans tend to interact and befriend those of different ethnicities and religious affiliations. Divisions generally occur more in regards to social class. This is largely due to the hierarchies of the caste system that the society previously operated under. In the context of Sri Lanka, the caste system refers to the ‘kula’ structure. This structure determines the social community into which one is born, often referred to in terms of vocation. Ideas about purity provide the rationale for the division of society into various groups, with the hierarchy of caste being determined by each group’s relative level of perceived impurity. This refers to both physical purity, in terms of one’s body and occupation, as well as one’s spiritual purity.
While Sri Lankans tend to be acutely aware of the social status they hold in relation to their peers, this attitude is more common outside of urban areas, particularly in villages. People in each kula are expected to preserve the distinct social classes with one example being endogamy/inter-caste marriages. However, it is worth noting that the caste hierarchy differs among those of Tamil and those of Sinhalese ethnicity. Since Tamils generally correlate to Hinduism, their model of the caste system resembles the model observed in Indian society (see ‘Hierarchy and Stratification’ in Core Concepts of the Indian Culture profile).
Regarding those of Sinhalese ethnicity, attitudes and ideas related to the caste system still prevail to an extent among the older generation, despite being abolished by law. However, the younger generation of Sinhalese Sri Lankans tend not to consider caste as a relevant factor when interacting with others. Indeed, a lot of the Sinhalese youth are unaware of their caste. Moreover, the caste system plays a minor role in terms of one’s spiritual progress or access to opportunities. Outside of the private sphere, most social interactions occur without reference to the caste system. Members of different kulas can work together and interact freely with one another without feeling uncomfortable about the caste inequalities. However, among those of Tamil ethnicity, the caste system continues to be a large factor in determining one’s position and interactions within society.
Face and Social Interactions
The concept of face is evident in the way Sri Lankans behave and interact with one another. Face refers to one’s reputation, dignity and honour. Sri Lankans may act in a deliberate and contemplative manner to to prevent outbursts or conflict. They will often try their best to remain calm and attempt to solve any problems that arise. Indeed, a common response when being asked to help a lending hand or to address an issue is to say “no problem”. Since Sri Lanka is a collectivistic society, individuals often perceive themselves to be members of their ethnic, religious or linguistic group rather than individual and autonomous actors. In turn, it is thought that a person’s actions can reflect back upon the groups they identify with.